A sermon for Proper 13, Pentecost 8 (14 A)
Genesis 32:22-31, Psalm 17: 1-7, 16, Romans 9:1-5, Matthew 14:13-21
Welcome! to Wrath – Down; HWW – Heaven Wide Wrestling!
The story of Jacob wrestling with an unnamed persona till dawn is to often read a contest with winners and losers. But listen closely, it doesn’t read that way. As easily as he disables Jacob, a single move and his hip is disabled, you get the sense Jacob’s protagonist could have done so at any time. On the other hand you have to give Jacob credit, his hip is all messed up yet he hangs on asking the protagonist for a blessing. It’s a curious thing to ask for, especially for a guy who stole his brother’s blessing. Even more significant is the blessing is actually a name change, Jacob to Israel, which means – “God strives,” “God rules,” “God heals,” or “he strives against God.” (Holman Bible Dictionary) And you remember that in the Old Testament when there’s a name change like Abram to Abraham or Sari to Sarah it’s time to pay attention, transformation is about. So what is going on? It will help to take a few steps back, and a couple of step forward to catch a fuller story.
When we left Jacob last week, he’d gotten married, twice. Between then and now: Leah has had 4 sons; Bilhah, Rachael’s maid has 2 sons; Zilpah, Leah’s maid has 2 sons; then Leah has 2 more sons; and finally Rachael has a son, Joseph, remember him. Once again Jacob makes an effort to leave but Laban makes it difficult there’s some negotiating about flocks and herds that Jacob seems to deceptively turn to his advantage. Laban’s sons notice, Jacob is increasingly eager to leave, and lo and behold he has a vision, God tells him to go home. He does so, not quite in the dark of night, but secretly enough that Laban chases him down, perhaps motivated by missing household gods. (Remember this is, a generation or so before Moses.) The short story is Laban catches Jacob; after a few arduous and difficult debates, they forge a covenant that basically says: you stay on that side of this rock pile and I’ll on this side of it. Laban’s pursuit seems to be over. Jacob and company are safe. Right?
Now if you recall, 20 years ago when Jacob left home he was fleeing because he had stolen his brother Esau’s blessing. He’s justifiably concerned his brother will still be angry so he sends messengers ahead; they report: Esau a’ coming ~ with 400 men. Jacob immediately beings developing plans. First he divides his company into two so if Esau destroys one the other may escape. Then he prays, he appeals to the God of his father, acknowledging he’s not the most worthy person, but that God did tell him to return home, which he is doing, and he seeks divine protect, more like a guarantee. As night falls, he creates sets of goats, sheep, camels, cows, and donkeys, each with herders, who get specific instructions for delivering the gifts to Esau. Jacob is hoping the sheer magnitude will appease him. Finally he sends what is left of that company and his family across the river Jabbok, which curiously enough means pouring out. (Strong’s) With that done with all aspects of his rather complex plan is in place, Jacob is alone, a rare thing for him, (Hoezee Genesis) last time we know he was alone we slept on a rock, and dreamed of a heavenly ladder.
Suddenly, he is wrestling this unnamed persona. Whoever it is, wrestles with Jacob till the earliest red of dawn begins to streak the sky. It’s the time for epic transformations. (Willis) This has been a different encounter; there are no slick plans, no turns of trickery, no fleeing in the night, this time Jacob stands he fights, openly, with all he has. (Willis)
This time Jacob is fighting for something, for a blessing, an honest blessing. When all is done, as Jacob is limping around he names the place “Peniel” which means “face of God,” because, as he says: I have seen God face to face and my life is preserved.
Now that we have caught up to ourselves, we just need a step or two forward. In the morning Jacob arranges his company to meet Esau: Bilhah, Zilpah and their sons Leah and her sons, finally Rachel and her son. Just when we think Jacob might have changed, more scheming oh well. (Pay attention to the order.) But Jacob is surprised, Esau runs to meet this brother, he embraces him, greets him with a kiss. They banter back and forth about all the gifts, Jacob insisting, and Esau declining, because he has more than enough.
In some ways it traditional back and forth. In other ways its two brothers talking past each other. But, in the midst of it all Jacobs says: … for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor. (Genesis 33:10) Shortly afterwards they make arrangements for Jacob to complete his journey, and Esau returns home. Jacob is to follow, but cuts his journey short, and settles in Succoth.
Notice: near a river named emptying out, where he wrestles with some divine persona at a place he names “face of God” he tells his brother seeing your face is like seeing the face of God. Perhaps Jacob is maturing into the person God wishes him, wishes us all to be. Just perhaps he is learning compassion.
Yes, and no; it is the compassion Jesus shows, when he heals the sick, and feeds 5000 men and their families, as he is grieving his cousin John the Baptist’s death. Yes, it is the same emotion. No, it’s not the care for, or response to someone’s hurt, the sympathy we and Webster associate with ‘compassion.’ The Greek root means to be disturbed in your gut. It’s the same root as spleen, because the ancients believed the emotions are seated in one’s bowels, not as we do in one’s heart. The Latin root helps us more, it means ‘to suffer with.’ In short to have compassion, you share in the same emotion; as Fredrick Buchner say’s it’s living in someone else’s skin. (Buechner) (Pankey Proper 13) Jesus is feeling John’s death, he is feeling the illness of the crowd, he is feeling the hunger of the masses who are chronically under-fed, another less than well-known truth of Pax Romania. (Carter) He has compassion, and acts. Jacob is feeling Esau’s joy. Perhaps he is feeling God’s presence, in ways beyond his permeate limp. He; well, at this point the story is still in process.
One more note: So far we’ve put all our attention on Jacob. But there’s another character who deserves our attention ~ God. Amy Merrill Willis writes:
the story also challenges any attempt to domesticate God and make the deity fit into some easy mold, whether that is “the wrathful God” or the “God who meets my needs.” … . It attests to the complex reality of a God who is intimately engaged with humans, who seeks them out, and blesses them, it even reminds us that this God is wily, unpredictable, and dangerous. (Willis)
Jacob’s is the story of a man’s journey with God, and how he is transformed. It’s also the story of our journey, how we are in process of transformation. Most importantly of all it’s the story of God who journeys with us and transforms us once in Jesus continually in the Holy Spirit. In a world full of planes, tunnels, and Ebola, it is easy to get distracted, to make our own plans to secure our own future. Perhaps we are to have compassion with God, to live in God’s skin, to be the divine reflection we are made to be. How? I don’t have a clue, except its unfolding for us right here, right now; I just hope we don’t have to wrestle till dawn to learn, but then again … to see the face of God.
Buechner, Fredrick. Beyond Words. n.d.
Carter, Warren. “Commentary on Matthew.” 20 7 2014. Working Preacher.
Hoezee, Scott. This Week at the Center for Excellence in Preaching. 27 7 2014.
“Holman Bible Dictionary.” WORD – QuickVerse , n.d.
Pankey, Steve. “Draughting Theology.” n.d. Word Press. <https://wordpress.com/read/blog/id/27985378/>.
Strong’s Talking Greek & Hebrew Dictionary. Wordsearch, n.d.
Willis, Amy Merrill. “Commentary on Genesis.” 2014. Working Preacher. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2149>.